Each year as we enter this season of the Triodion, we encounter the hymn “By the Waters of Babylon”, otherwise known as Psalm 136/137. The hymn troubles many people for a myriad of reasons, but perhaps mostly with the means by which it closes. Let’s take an in-depth look at the hymn, and at the Psalm, and see if we can come to understand what the Church is attempting to get us to absorb for our own benefit.
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, as we remembered Zion! Alleluia!”
As the Psalm was written by the Jews, their complaint was about their Babylonian captivity, having been defeated by an unjust and an ungodly enemy. And so, they wept for their state of living as slaves to unjust masters.
For us as Christians, Babylon is the sinfulness of this world. The ‘waters of Babylon’ are the things which flow from the fallen state of the world, its sinful nature, its attempts at all turns to force us to conform to its fallenness, the things that tie us to this world, and not to our “home” – heaven, or in this Psalm, Zion and Jerusalem. And so, we also sit and weep for our being held captive by the unjust and ungodly and sinful state of the world around us. We desire with all of our hearts to be “at home,” as did the Jews. Home for them was Zion, or Jerusalem. Home for us is heaven, in the presence of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Blessed Augustine writes that we should sit by the waters, and not dare to plunge into them, but instead weep for the state in which we find ourselves.
“Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang up our harps. Alleluia!”
Our ‘harps’ are the instruments used to pray to and praise God - our voices! In the presence of temptation that draws us back into a sinful world, we should hang up our harps, not using our voices, or any thing which we hold to be holy and sacred in any manner that serves the sinful desires of this world.
Willows are trees that bear no fruit. They are growing in the waters of Babylon, indicating that the waters feed that which is barren! Things which are transitory, things which are tied to the cares of the world feed that which is unfruitful. We can picture the Jews, sitting and weeping by the willows. In our own world, we have "the weeping willow", a tree which similarly bears no fruit, and whose branches hang low, so that even the dew which collects on the leaves drips from the leaves as tears drip from the eyes. The Latin name for the weeping willow? Salix Babylonica!
“For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song. Alleluia!”
We are tempted by the delights of earthly things. We struggle constantly with the temptations of the pleasures we know to be against our calling as Christians. All of these things beckon to us to lend our voices to support them. Think of the world around us, asking us to assent to abortion, to legalize drug use, to give credence to homosexuality. They ask us to use our God-given voices to ‘sing’ the melodies that are sweet to them, but not to God.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Alleluia!”
Truly, how strange is the land in which we are sojourning – not ‘living’ here, only occupying this place until we can go to our true home? If we speak what we believe, what we hold as truth, we are shouted down. We endure mockery. The ‘strange land’ in which we live prevents us from ‘singing the Lord’s hymn’ to them, for they refuse to hear, or even to listen.
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Alleluia!”
Please remember that Jerusalem is the metaphor for our home, for heaven. If we forget heaven, if we forget the promise of what God has labored and died Himself to grant to us, what then is our hope founded upon? Things that are here and will remain and die here? Is that our hope? If so, it is vanity! If we begin to love the things of this world more than the promise of that which God has promised to us, then we have already forgotten Jerusalem.
“Let my tongue cleave to my throat if I do not remember you. Alleluia”
The words mean, ‘Let me have no voice, let me be dumb.’ What words, what sounds can have any meaning to those whose home is heaven if those words do not serve our home, but instead serve Babylon?
“If I set not Jerusalem above all others as at the head of my joy. Alleluia!”
When heaven is promised to us, when the place to which we aspire to go is a place where there is no sickness, no sorrow, no suffering, but life everlasting in the presence of our Lord, how is this not the chief focus of our lives? How is it not ‘the head of our joy’? Where can we hope to find greater joy than when we are in the presence of our God? What worldly things can allure us to remove this greatest focus?
“Remember, O Lord, the sons of Edom in the day of Jerusalem. Alleluia!”
Who were the ‘sons of Edom’? Edom is another name for Esau. Esau was the twin but older brother (by minutes) of Jacob. Edom means ‘red’, the color of his hairy body at birth. You’ll remember that Esau sold his birthright – that ‘right’ which goes to the eldest son – to his brother for the cost of some red stew. It was the beginning of the end of a wholesome family. Jacob went on to deliver the promise that God made to Abraham, and Esau’s offspring populated the land named for their ancestor, Edom, and became known as Edomites. The two lands were in conflict throughout their histories. On the day that the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, the Edomites were their allies, and they urged the Babylonians to destroy the city, to not leave one stone upon another.
For us, there are those who seek the destruction of the Church, of our faith, of all who hold as holy the teachings of our Lord. There are modern ‘sons of Edom’, and we must pray that our own ‘day of Jerusalem’, a day when the Church is about to be destroyed, may never come. Christ promised, “The gates of Hades shall not prevail” against His Church (Mat 16:18).
“Who said, ‘Lay waste, lay waste to her, even to the foundations thereof. Alleluia!”
These same enemies of Jerusalem sought to encourage their allies to leave no remnant of Jerusalem after its conquering – to destroy it utterly. Carnal men, seeking not the will of God, but of Satan, to destroy all that is godly.
For us, who can deny that from the time the Church was founded that there have been other ‘sons of Edom’ who have sought the destruction of the Church, and who continue to do so? It has occurred since the birth of the Church, and even before in the life of our Lord. And it will continue until His return. He leaves us the commandments found perhaps best in Mark Chapter 13, to be watchful, and then the promises, "He who endures to the end shall be saved." (Mark 13:13)
Now we get to the places where people most often have the greatest difficulty with the Psalm and the hymn.
“O daughter of Babylon, you wretched one. Blessed is He who shall reward you with what you have rewarded us. Alleluia!”
One which succeeds another is referred to as the ‘daughter’. The daughter of Babylon comes from Babylon. If Babylon is the destroyer of Jerusalem, then the daughter of Babylon is one who continues to attempt to destroy that which is godly. In the Psalm Babylon ‘rewarded’ Jerusalem with the total destruction of all that tied them to God. The prayer of the Psalm is one in which the Jews beseech God to separate them from the followers of Satan, and from his influence. It carries this same meaning for us. We sing blessings to the One who came, and overcame, and overthrew hell’s dominion over us.
“Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash your infants against the rock. Alleluia!”
For the Jews in Babylon, it was an anguished cry to God to deliver them from those who had overthrown their city, slaughtered their men, destroyed their families, and most of all, attempted to destroy their faith. If any offspring of the Babylonians arose, these offspring would have the power and authority to retain the Jews already captive in Babylon for generations.
For us, the One we are blessing is He who has defeated hell’s authority over us, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He has come to take our ‘little ones’, the small offenses which, if we hold onto, if we forget Jerusalem, we allow to be watered by the waters of Babylon and to grow into full blown sins which will ensnare us to this world. And so we seek His aid to dash these seedlings, these ‘infants’ before they take root and grow into that which will hold us for all the generations He may give us before He is ready to call us to be with Him in the heavenly Jerusalem.
The hymn does have significant meaning to us, and its meaning carries no sinister wishes, requests or prayers. If we listen and understand, it elevates us out of the waters of Babylon. It rejects Satan and his influence over this world. And then, it lifts us to the very gates of heaven.